15 June ~ If you think about it, it came down to one goal. A good goal too. When Stephen Hunt smacked in what would be in any other game a consolation for Wolves against Blackburn three minutes from the end of the season, everything changed. What would have been one of Birmingham City's best ever seasons took yet another turn, as Alex McLeish promptly sent everything but the ball into the Tottenham half of the field. The result? Spurs scored with the last kick of the season, Birmingham were beaten and relegation followed.
Since then? Around 16 players have left. Marlon King signed. Virtually every valuable player we've got has been linked with someone else. And then McLeish handed in his notice by email, just as his fourth new signing of the summer was about to be confirmed. The manner of McLeish's departure has come in for some criticism, but I can't really blame him. In his four years at Birmingham, he's given us two relegations, our highest ever finish in the Premier League and our first cup win of note since the 1960s. Most of us would have taken that the day he joined. Sadly, he's also had to take very public knocks from two successive sets of owners, which he's dealt with, displaying a dignity that his employers could well learn something from. In what other profession can a boss publicly criticise an individual member of staff and there not be repercussions.
I'm not rose-tinted about the McLeish era of football at Birmingham. The over-reliance on 4-5-1 and some of the dourest football I've ever witnessed are hardly highlights. The odd goal would have been nice too. But then this is a results business and Birmingham have surrendered a manager that got them, more often than not, and also picked up bargain after bargain in the transfer market. The message-board managers, some of whom were calling for McLeish's head within months of him starting, may just have to be careful what they wish for now.
McLeish, whether Birmingham fans liked him or not, at the very least deserves respect and a warm welcome back anytime he goes near St Andrew's. Granted, if rumours prove true that he's ending up at Villa Park then his welcome will prove short-lived (although the current, plausible suggestion around Brum is that board problems were to blame for his exit, with the possible sale of Roger Johnson the catalyst). But what is fair to expect from a manager of a club that's not in the top-ten tier of English football? Less than McLeish delivered, I'd argue.
It's depressing how quickly it's all unravelled. When Stephen Carr lifted the Carling Cup just four months ago, the dream was of Craig Gardner sailing in a 30-yarder or two against some of the best Europe has to offer. Now? We'll be lucky if Gardner stays and it's comfortably the best plan to get knocked out of the Europa League quickly.
Instead, what has to happen at Birmingham now is what hasn't happened there for the best part of two decades. Because now, surely, is the time to get a strong successor in (Martin O'Neill would insert the requisite feline amongst the pigeons) and for the people who run the club to, bluntly, shut up. Silent owners, a supportive structure and a brave new start, and that has to be just the start of it. If that happens, Hunt, in the long run, might just have done us a favour. But I suspect, either way, we'll miss Alex McLeish a lot more than many people give him credit for. Simon Brew